Social Security is a really bad deal for millennials, as my colleague Julian Adorney perfectly illustrated in a recent piece in National Review. It effectively garnishes wages, it prevents us from paying down debt in a timely manner, and creates a bias against savings. The benefit of responsible, private investment of retirement savings far exceed the returns from Social Security. But the negative effects of Social Security, and its entitlement partner Medicare, go beyond the personal finances of prospective recipients.
You can see their negative legacy in the fact that credible allegations of sexual abuse have not sunk the candidacy of Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore. Or that similar scandals didn’t derail Donald Trump’s presidential bid. It’s also present in the public’s extreme disapproval of Congress. Social Security and Medicare’s existence as third rails of policy have made our politics stale, and contributed to rampant partisanship and gridlock. They’ve effectively limited the scope of legislative possibility, which is one factor (among many) responsible for the hyper-polarized atmosphere we find ourselves in now.
Gridlock is a feature of the American system of government (and not always a bad one). Former President Barack Obama’s time in office was marked by intense Republican opposition with only a few significant legislative accomplishments, such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act. President Trump is approaching one year in office with zero legislative victories, also facing fierce opposition. Multiple efforts to repeal the ACA have gone down in flames, and the current tax reform bill is incredibly unpopular. This inability to pass any legislation is what drives Congress’s abysmal approval ratings, most recently at 13 percent according to Gallup.
Entitlements make up large portions of the federal budget that are basically untouchable, both legally and politically, crowding out new ideas and different ways of doing things. In fiscal year 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 24 percent of the federal government’s budget was spent on Social Security, and 26 percent was spent on healthcare programs, Medicare the most expensive among them. Spending on these two programs is required by law, so nearly half of the federal budget is spoken for from the start.
Another 16 percent of federal spending was devoted to national defense, which is politically mandated spending, and paying the interest on the national debt was 6 percent. These locked-in areas combined with entitlements monopolize 75 percent of the federal budget in any given year. The costs of entitlements are inevitably going to rise, as the workforce ages, and we continue to spend more and more on healthcare.
Congress has a hard time getting anything done because there’s not much left on the table with which to work. This has long-term negative implications for policy, as economist Tyler Cowen argues in his book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. It signals a lack of bold thinking about the future. “Over the next few decades,” Cowen writes, “the world is likely to change a lot, but the federal budget much less so.” Congress is hamstrung from the get-go, as the federal government operates on autopilot.
This gridlock drives dissatisfaction, which in turn contributes to partisanship and polarization. Elections are more about “who is to blame, than who is to govern,” Cowen says, and politics becomes “shrill and symbolic rather than about making decisions or solving problems.” Trump tapped into this hyper-partisanship in his campaign, offering vague and unrealistic promises based on his dislike of Obama - a trend that continues during Trump's days in the White House - and it clearly worked.
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore maintains the support of the Alabama GOP, and committed supporters have been circling the wagons around him in the wake of sexual abuse allegations, despite being effectively abandoned by the national party. While he is suffering overall in the polls, many Alabama Republicans are making it clear they would rather vote for a man alleged of preying on teenage girls than vote for a Democrat. It doesn’t get more symbolic and shrill than that.
Social Security and Medicare are incredibly important programs for the many people who currently rely on them, and we should meet those obligations. But they play too large of a role in politics, and reforms, either significant tax increases or spending cuts, are way overdue. This doesn’t mean all of our problems would disappear overnight or even over a decade. But a coach doesn’t send his players onto the court with their hands tied together.
If you want better performance from your government, then you should give your representatives more options to work with.
Jerrod A. Laber is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a writer living in northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate, and was a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation.
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